By Teresa Taylor Williams
Sunday mornings are different now for many folks who used to attend traditional church services in West Michigan.
For safety reasons and to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, last March Governor Whitmer issued stay at home orders, which are still largely in effect. This meant people could no longer participate in traditional, face to face church services nor attend their edifice of choice for worship.
And folks are feeling the impact.
For Shelinda Knight Davenport of Muskegon Heights, she misses the personal interaction at Phillip Chapel AME Church in Muskegon. Her Pastor, Anita McCants, often posts sermons and uplifting messages on Facebook, and the church also hosts prayer conference calls.
“Worship has changed, but it has not stopped. We’ve had to solely depend on technology to get our unity praise on,” Davenport said. “This sometimes presents a problem because not everyone is tech savvy. I have missed some services due to technical difficulties. But God is so good, and if I miss mine, I can catch a service (online) of another church.”
Many churches are utilizing current technology and choose to provide “virtual” church as an alternative for their congregations. Ministry leaders provide their messages on the Internet via Facebook, Zoom, YouTube, or other means.
Services for Christian Fellowship and Outreach Church in downtown Muskegon are being broadcast Sunday mornings on Muskegon 100.9FM, and Pastor Tyrone Rule also posts his services on Facebook.
“One of the challenges is preaching to an empty sanctuary,” he said, adding that often he will preach with only his wife and a sound man in the building. He said he misses “the whole camaraderie of saints there. The fellowship encourages you and each other. That’s the dynamic of it.”
Rule said he is pleased with the ability to reach new and different folks outside of his congregation. “At one recent (online) Bible study, we had 86 people,” he said, adding that the messages provide convenience so people can go back and watch sermons.
Along with the online messages, Rule and his wife are committed to staying connected with members of the congregation via phone calls. “We try to sit down and call everyone. I give a word of encouragement to weather the storm, reminding them that God is still in charge,” Rule said. “We don’t want to miss anyone during this time frame. There is a potential for depression, and we want to make sure they hear from their church. We will reach out as much as we can, especially to our senior citizens.”
Coretta Pimpleton of Muskegon said the pandemic has forced ministries to think outside of the box. She sees this potentially as “a good thing.”
“I feel these circumstances have encouraged members to reach out, check on, and encourage each other. It also has made it possible for individuals to virtually visit, as well as experience the ‘flavor’ of some other ministries that they would not normally be able to do because of supporting their own home church,” Pimpleton said. “Let’s face it, sometimes we get so complacent with our church routine. I believe that God has used this pandemic to shake us and wake us up! Go God!”
For Dawanda Greene of Muskegon, she insists church is not solely about meeting in a building. She and her family enjoy worship services at home from a variety of online sources. “Church can never go back to normal,” she said.
Pastor Dave Celeskey of Unity Reformed Church in Muskegon said he is fortunate to have a solid technology team, which has made for a fairly seamless transition to providing messages online.
“But even with that, we were not all (as a congregation) in 100% agreement. As with any church, there are members who come from different perspectives in life. We had some who wished to shut everything down right away and lock the doors very early on, and we had some who were willing to hug anyone who came in, regardless of consequences. There was no one right answer,” said Celeskey.
The church began live streaming on Facebook a couple of years ago. “We have a number of ‘homebound’ members (formally called shut-ins) as well as winter travelers. Our live stream was always a secondary aspect of what we did,” said Celeskey.
He added: “But now we have put it to the forefront as a way to keep as much of life normal in a very abnormal time. The crazy thing is, we are reaching more people than we were before. I’m a stats and graphs geek and I like to look at the analytics; where are people watching from? How does one person’s ‘share’ on Facebook impact our outreach? It’s a different form of evangelism for many of us.”
Pastor James Williams of Beulah Baptist Church in Muskegon Heights sees the restrictions placed on his church as a challenge that he and his church members gladly take on.
“It’s an interesting time for the church. The Coronavirus is forcing us to launch out in different ways. It’s challenging us, our faith, our traditions, what we’re used to and accustomed to. At the same time, I believe God is being glorified in it,” Williams said.
He sees the hurdles that today’s churches are posed with as opportunities.
“Real ministry is outside the walls of the church. Now God is forcing us to go out and reach out to other people. That’s our challenge. Now we are to act in ways that Jesus wanted us to. He was asked why He hung out with certain people. He said it’s not the well people that need church, it’s the sick,” he said. “Right now, many people are searching. When we’re not as comfortable, we turn back to God. We have to go where the people are, and we’ve discovered the people are on the Internet. It’s an opportunity for the church to embrace, learn and grow. It’s forcing us to get out from within the confines of the church.”
Similar to other churches, his messages may be seen and heard online. Beulah also holds prayer conference calls and parking lot services with attendees remaining in their vehicles.
Williams added: “If we never engage the people in different ways, we’ll never reach them. We are to go to the hedges and highways and compel men to come to Christ. I don’t want us to go backwards after this. That’s where my heart is.”